Being an expat is always a challenge, no matter how eager you are for new experiences and how willing you are to suffer confusion or discomfort. However, living in Saudi Arabia can be a particularly trying experience for some. The restrictions on most aspects of life leave very little to do outside of work, and flouting the norms is not just a question of impropriety – most restrictions have the law behind them, and the consequences of breaking them are severe.With no theatres, live music venues, bars, or nightclubs, and with restrictions even on what you can do and wear in a place like a public park, the main recreational activity in Saudi Arabia has become shopping. The harsh climate of course adds to the allure of shopping – spending the evening in an air-conditioned shopping mall is vastly preferred to walking around outdoors. Of course shopping in Saudi Arabia has its own codes and customs, and it’s important to be familiar with them well in advance.
The souks are the traditional, open-air markets that exist across much of the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia too has plenty of them. This is where you can get a glimpse of traditional culture in spite of the frequent intrusions of the modern world, such as the bright artificial lights, the electronics on display, and the often haphazard modern constructions side by side with old architecture. The capital city of Riyadh has several souks, and so do the other cities, such as Jeddah and Taif. These include the gold and silver souks, where you can buy these metals by weight at surprisingly low prices. In general too, the souks are great for buying cheap products, ranging from oriental carpets to incense and from ornamental swords to local spices. Bargaining and haggling over the price is expected on everything, and the traders quote a high initial price with this expectation in mind.
Malls and shopping centers
The malls and shopping centers are where you’ll find almost any international brand you can think of. The malls will typically house over a hundred international brands, along with department stores and supermarkets, recreational areas for kids, and a substantial food court area. In almost every way, the malls and shopping centers are on par with those in any other part of the world, and if not for the dress code, you could probably imagine that you’re back home. The main other difference of course is that you won’t find alcohol, pork, and a few other products anywhere.
Customs and restrictions
Mixing of the sexes is almost universally forbidden in Saudi Arabia, and shopping is no exception. On the other hand, women are not allowed to move around unescorted by a man. As a result, there is often segregation – certain spaces are reserved for single men, and others for families. There are often separate sections for these two groups in shops, and even separate queues for them. Some shops only allow families – single men are not permitted to enter them at all. In other shops, these restrictions may be time-bound – for example, single men are not allowed to enter after 10 pm.
It is important to note that all the restrictions that apply elsewhere in Saudi Arabia apply in the markets and shopping centers too. Physical contact between men and women is best avoided, and displays of physical affection are definitely out of the question. Women must be fully covered with abayas, and it is advisable that the clothing underneath the abaya covers as much skin as possible too. The dress code for men is not as strict, but they must dress “modestly” too. Shorts should be avoided, and so should sleeveless t-shirts or singlets. Some men do wear knee-length shorts, but anything shorter is completely forbidden. Wearing clothes that are considered skimpy or provocative in any way can get you evicted from a shop, or worse still, the muttawa, the religious police, could get involved. They are usually mild with expats, at least as far as dress is concerned, and will only inform you that you are not properly dressed (unless you choose to wear something outrageous), but it’s best to avoid the warning altogether.
Those are our tips for shopping in Saudi Arabia. Have you lived there? Share your experiences in the comments.